Among poets, Stevie Smith (1902-1971) must take the palm for achieving a kind of immortality with just four haunting words: “Not waving but drowning.” There in a nutshell is, to quote Robert Lowell, her “cheerfully gruesome voice.”
For most of her life, Smith worked as a secretary in a British publishing house and lived with her aunt; she also wrote fiction, notably the Virginia Woolf-like “Novel on Yellow Paper.” Seamus Heaney once summed up Smith’s concerns as “death, waste, loneliness, cruelty, the maimed, the stupid, the innocent, the trusting.” He left out her heterodox Christianity, love for animals and a penchant for minimal punctuation. She also enjoyed augmenting her poetry with scratchy, child-like drawings, such that “All the Poems; Stevie Smith” — a definitive collection — looks as if it were decorated by Edward Lear or James Thurber.
In fact, her work — notwithstanding its overall plangency — could initially be mistaken for light verse. Certainly, an outward charm is part of Smith’s aesthetic strategy, though there’s nothing naive or whimsical beneath her surface. Take, for example, the poem that bears her famous four words as its title:
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no, no, no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
The more you consider this strange little masterpiece, the more suggestive it becomes, shifting from a single incident at a beach to a tiny allegory of loneliness and the desire for human connection. Note the details: “Nobody heard him,” he was farther away from the people on shore than anyone realized, his reputation for “larking” about suggests a desperate desire for attention, the guess that “his heart gave way” because of the chilly water is countered by the pathetic confession that he “was too cold always” and “too far out all my life” and, finally, that what seemed to be his waving was actually the floundering of a human being desperate to be rescued. In fact, everything about the drowned man has been misunderstood: Little wonder he shouts “no, no, no” even after he is dead.
In reading “All the Poems,” one can’t help but notice example after example of Smith’s fondness for what she called “deceitful echoes” from earlier poets. Listen to the first tercet of “The Smile”:
When ancient girl is garbed in spite
And turns to rend, and lives to bite,
Oh what can end the marriage night?
Here, she reworks Oliver Goldsmith’s poignant lyric: “When lovely woman stoops to folly/ And finds too late that men betray.”
Her opening to “Some are Born” picks up the rhythm and diction of William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence,” before switching into a Dorothy Parker voice of blithe stoicism:
Some are born to peace and joy
And some are born to sorrow
But only for a day as we
Shall not be here tomorrow.
In “Company,” she uncannily channels what could be a lost quatrain from W.H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening”:
Rise from your bed of languor
Rise from your bed of dismay
Your friends will not come tomorrow
As they did not come today.
Good writing, Smith believed, had to be “sad, true, economical” and, not least, “funny.” The opening of “My Hat” sounds as if it were being spoken by the heroine of a musical just before she belts out her big number:
Mother said if I wore this hat
I should be certain to get off with the right sort of chap
Well look where I am now, on a desert island
With so far as I can see no one at all on hand.
Smith’s humor, though, takes many forms. “Souvenir de Monsieur Poop” neatly mocks the buttoned-up conservatism of the London literary establishment:
I am the self-appointed guardian of English literature,
I believe tremendously in the significance of age;
I believe that a writer is wise at 50,
Ten years wiser at 60, at 70 a sage.
While the 1976 Oxford University Press edition of Stevie Smith’s “Collected Poems” is an exceptionally handsome book, and probably sufficient for many readers, those crazy about this wonderful and strange poet will obviously want Will May’s splendid “All the Poems.” It includes not only much hitherto uncollected material but also pages of concise bibliographical notes. For instance, Smith added speech marks to lines of “Not Waving but Drowning” when it was reprinted in an essay she contributed to, of all things, the journal Medical World.
Let me close with a final quotation — from the finale of “Thoughts About the Person From Porlock” — that again reflects Smith’s characteristic blend of the comic and bleakly unsentimental:
These thoughts are depressing I know. They are depressing,
I wish I was more cheerful, it is more pleasant,
Also it is a duty, we should smile as well as submitting
To the purpose of One Above who is experimenting
With various mixtures of human character which goes best.
All is interesting for him it is exciting, but not for us.
There I go again. Smile, smile and get some work to do
Then you will be practically unconscious without positively having to go.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style and is the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”
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Edited by Will May
New Directions. 806 pp. $39.95